As Theresa May sits down to lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker to try and persuade the EU Commission to give Britain the green light to talk trade, confusion reigns over what concessions the UK government is making in order to do this. There are reports that a solution to the Irish border has been found. A draft version is said to promise ‘continued regulatory alignment’ – if no solutions are found:
‘In the absence of agreed solutions the UK will ensure that there continues to be continued regulatory alignment with those rules of the internal market + customs union which, now or in the future, support North South cooperation +protection of the GFA.’
Given that this seems to suggest that Northern Ireland could be bound by EU regulations (and the rest of the UK could not), it appears to potentially cross several unionist red lines, not least the DUP’s. This is the view Lord Trimble took on the World at One. The Tory peer said that he was ‘shocked’ by the reports – and thought his colleagues in Parliament would be too. He added that he hoped the Prime Minister would claw back from what has been said to the media:
‘Potentially this is very bad news for Northern Ireland, if it happens. I hope that what we’re getting is not a completely accurate account.’
This may be a premature objection. What the UK government were trying to do in order to get ‘sufficient progress’ granted was to basically fudge it by coming up with a form of words that each side can read what it wants from. This appears to be it – there’s an assurance that there will be no hard border but the UK government takes a rather different view from Dublin on what level of regulatory alignment is required to maintain the North South cooperation that was ushered in by the Good Friday agreement.
The DUP’s press conference just now showed their unease with what is being proposed. They accused Dublin of seeking to alter Northern Ireland’s status without their ‘consent’, remember consent is the key principle of the Good Friday Agreement. But Arlene Foster appeared to be keen not to shut down any options, there were no threat to bring down the government or anything like that. There’s a sense that the DUP are waiting until they have seen the precise wording of the text, and heard the UK government’s interpretation of it, before making their verdict clear.
The problem is that even if the DUP support the government for now, the ‘solution’ amounts to kicking the can down the road. The difference between ‘continued regulatory alignment’ and ‘avoiding regulatory divergence’ (as written in a previous draft) is small but important – perhaps as subtle as the difference between a couple who are ‘seeing each other’ and a couple who are ‘dating’. When it comes to the Irish border, the second stage of the talks will be when the details are really fleshed out as the trade relationship will be known. This is the point where not every side will be able to claim they are the winner.